Helen Rivers first saw flames through the trees while on a walk with her dogs, Angel and Trixie, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon last month.
She couldn’t tell where the fire, couched in plumes of black smoke, was burning. But it appeared to be near her Seabrook home that backed up to the Whale Branch River.
She dialed 911 on her cellphone and rushed back. As she got closer, she realized it was her house of 15 years being flattened by the flames.
The fire would quickly destroy most of the 6,000-square foot home, killing Rivers’ two other dogs, Bo and Levi, who were inside.
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Firefighters managed to rescue one photo: a charred image of two of Rivers’ sisters. “They almost brought me to tears when they handed it to me,” Rivers said.
Rivers’ Seabrook Point neighborhood, and an unknown number of others across Beaufort County, lack fire hydrants, increasing the odds of homes burning down and lives being lost.
It’s impossible to determine which homes lack adequate hydrant protection because the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, which maintains 7,605 of the county’s fire hydrants, refused a request from the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette for comprehensive information about the hydrants’ locations.
And Beaufort County, which charges residents for fire protection on their annual property bills, doesn’t track hydrants’ locations. County officials have no plans to install hydrants in communities that lack them, saying residents in these existing neighborhoods must take it upon themselves to add pricey hydrants.
Broadly speaking, the county’s fire officials say a wide range of communities lack hydrants, from mobile homes on dirt roads to million-dollar mansions in exclusive communities. They were all built before stringent fire protection codes were adopted or are located in the county’s rural areas that lack water lines that feed hydrants.
“It’s almost like going back in time to the 1700s,” said Lt. Dan Byrne, spokesman for the Burton Fire District, describing efforts to put out Rivers’ house fire. “The strategy was just, ‘Well, your house is on fire, so it’s gone. But we’re going to keep it from burning down the entire neighborhood.”
While all of the people got out of Rivers’ home safely, that was not the case during another fire last fall. In September, three Seabrook residents — including children ages 4 and 10 — died in a fire in a mobile home on a dirt road miles away from the nearest hydrant.
Family members, traumatized by the deaths, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Fires are seen as, ‘Oh well, that’s life,’” Byrne said. “No, it’s not life. With fire hydrants and other fire protection, deaths from fires do not need to happen.”
Too much of Beaufort County lacks those safeguards, residents say.
“We have no fire protection,” said Seabrook Point resident Margaret Bukkosy.
During the fire last month at Rivers’ home, “if you saw the water stream coming from the pumper truck, it’s laughable. People that watched it said it was a real Mickey Mouse operation,” she said.
In areas without hydrants, fire fighters rely on fire engines and fire tankers, which hold around 2,000 gallons of water each and are far less effective than hydrants.
“Without a fire hydrant nearby, you’re going to be limited with what you do. Your water (from a fire tanker) will last for about five to seven minutes,” said Bill Pesature, district vice president of the S.C. Professional Firefighters Association. “After that’s over, if you haven’t been able to extinguish that in that short amount of time, the fire grows rapidly.
“If you don’t have tankers, and you don’t have hydrants, they’re not servicing those people at all,” he said.
Which areas lack fire hydrants?
Beaufort County and its municipalities charge residents for fire protection on their annual property tax bills. Those who live in the unincorporated Beaufort County pay millage rates of $25.64 to $69.79.
But the county can’t say where hydrants are located.
“I don’t know that there’s any way that we can track that information,” said Josh Gruber, Beaufort County’s interim county administrator. “You would probably have to go community by community, and that’s not something that we’ve done.”
And the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority won’t say either, citing unspecified public safety reasons.
Experts criticize both BJWSA and the county for keeping that information private. It should “absolutely” be public information, Pesature said, so that residents can know whether they are protected.
The majority of the county does have adequate fire protection through hydrants that are connected to the public water supply or alternatives to fire hydrants, said Chuck Atkinson, the county’s building codes director. Buildings without hydrants may get water from nearby ponds, sprinklers, or tanks that store water.
“I don’t want you to ... make it look like nobody’s looking after water supply, because that’s not the case,” Atkinson said. “There may or may not be a fire hydrant on the corner ... if it was a neighborhood that was in existence before there was a requirement of having fire flow and having a specific distance from a fire hydrant or a fire supply.”
In general, fire marshals and fire chiefs from the county’s eight fire districts identified the following spots as lacking hydrants:
- Areas directly south of Whale Branch River, including the Seabrook area and Stuart Point Road
- The fast-growing Pritchardville area near Bluffton and the Callawassie area, north of Bluffton
- About 30 percent of the Sheldon Fire District, in the most northern part of the county
- All of Judge Island, located between Lady’s Island and St. Helena Island
- About 55 percent of Daufuskie Island, near the west and southwest parts of the island
- Oaks Plantation and homes on various long, dirt roads on St. Helena Island
In addition, the north end of Hilton Head has gaps exceeding the International Fire Code’s recommendation that there be no more than 1,000 feet between fire hydrants.
A community divided
Even in neighborhoods like Seabrook that have experienced recent fires, residents are split on whether they need hydrants.
“I’ve been living in the country since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Rivers said. “It’s a risk you take, living in the country.”
The day that Rivers’ house burned, 18-year-old house guest Quseem Brown was upstairs playing video games. The Rivers’ husky, Levi, started scratching at the door, and Brown paused his game to let the dog out.
“I opened the door (and) black smoke poured in,” Brown said.
A couple of streets down, neighbor David Orford saw the smoke.
“Doggone!” he remembers saying, and then drove in his golf cart to the house. He arrived before the firefighters, grabbed a garden hose from a next-door neighbor’s home and soaked the grass, hoping to stop flames from spreading to nearby homes.
It took nearly seven minutes for the first Burton fire engine to arrive on scene after Rivers called 911.
The Burton Fire District brought five fire engines to battle the flames. Since Burton doesn’t have tankers, the Sheldon Fire District delivered two tanker trucks to help replenish the water supply.
The firefighters considered using water from the nearby Whale Branch River, but with the tide was going out. It was too low for the officers to park the fire engine nearby and pump water through it.
Instead, each tanker had to make at least eight trips to the fill site and load up with water.
A few hours later, one wing of the home remained standing. But the main house was destroyed, with only a few cream-colored beams from the original structure still upright. The rest: debris blackened by fire, spread across the manicured lawn.
Even after losing almost everything, Rivers says she won’t push for fire hydrants in her neighborhood.
“Fire hydrants are frightfully expensive,” Rivers said. Installing water lines and hydrants in the Seabrook Point community would cost more than $1 million, according to records from the BJWSA.
Rivers, who now stays in a rental home but still regularly mows her lawn since the fire, doubts that the fire department could have done anything to prevent the fire from destroying her house — “the fire moved so blooming fast,” she said.
Byrne, the first firefighter on the scene, said hydrants could have limited the amount of destruction.
“We cooled it as best we could until the water supply tankers got there. Once the tankers got there, then (the goal) was just to protect the other homes as best we could,” Byrne said.
In an ideal world, neighbor Christine Mohr said, she wants hydrants. It’s unnerving living without fire protection, she said, and paying pricey insurance rates because there are no hydrants.
But she’s not sure how to wrap her mind around the cost to install water lines and hydrants from the Water and Sewer Authority. Each resident would have to pay more than $9,000. Plus, the authority informed residents that they would have to switch from their deep wells to public water when the water lines are put in.
Other residents don’t share the same misgivings.
After a fire demolished one home in December 2013, resident Bukkosy led the charge for hydrants. She spoke at county council meetings and attended Water and Sewer Authority board meetings. She even worked with the utility and county to secure a community block grant that would cover part of the installation costs for low-income residents.
When the homeowners association put the issue to a vote in early 2014, only 39 of the 109 resident owners voted to install water lines and hydrants. At least 60 percent of a community must vote in favor of a project like this for the authority to proceed, according to spokesperson Pam Flasch.
Four years later, Bukkosy plans on calling for another vote.
More hydrants for Hilton Head
On Hilton Head, efforts are underway to increase fire protection. The public service district is finalizing a plan with the fire district to expand the island’s system on the north end of the island.
Some fire hydrants are spaced more than 1,000 feet apart, which makes it difficult to quickly and efficiently hook up the trucks and extinguish fires. The fire district plans to reduce the distance between hydrants to 700 or 800 feet, said Hilton Head fire chief Brad Tadlock.
The town of Hilton Head and the Public Service District plan to evenly split the estimated $100,000 cost, said Pete Nardi, general manager of the Public Service District.
Circumstances are different north of the Broad, though. The area is more rural, and older neighborhoods often don’t have water lines close by.
“Is a fire hydrant good? Yes, if you have something to hook it to,” said building codes director Atkinson.
The county leaves it up to homeowners in these areas to pay for improvements.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that there’s going to be this mass expansion of water lines across the county,” said Gruber, the county administrator, citing high costs. “It would be up to existing communities to look at retrofitting their own system.”
Council members Brian Flewelling and Gerald Dawson, who represent parts of Burton, agreed that the responsibility ultimately lies with the residents.
“I would love for members of that community to take responsibility for their property and acquire a good fire system,” Flewelling said. “The people who live in those houses choose to live in those houses. The fact that (they live where) the fire retardant system is less (than ideal) is their choice.”
Councilman Dawson said he would consider looking at funding to add fire protection to low-income neighborhoods, but only if those residents pushed for help.
“Until the communities express a concern to have that change, it’s certainly something that’s going to plague us,” he said.
In a perfect world, each home would have a fire hydrant easily accessible by the length of the hose on each fire truck, said Pesature of the S.C. Professional Firefighters Association.
That’s a difficult and expensive charge. But local firefighters insist that it’s necessary for basic safety.
“Every fire I’ve responded to was preventable,” Byrne said. “Every fire fatality was preventable.”
How protected is your home?
The Insurance Service Office (ISO) rates fire districts based on the level of fire protection provided for any given neighborhood. ISO ratings range from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best. Here are local ISO ratings:
Bluffton Township Fire District: 3
Burton Fire District: 2, with a rating of 2X in communities where fire hydrants are more than 1,000 feet apart.
City of Beaufort-Port Royal Fire District: 1
Daufuskie Fire District: 3
Fripp Island District: 4
Hilton Head Fire District: 3
Lady’s Island-St. Helena Fire District: 3
Sheldon Fire District, which covers communities north of the Whale Branch River: 4
What should you do if you’re concerned about fire protection?
▪ Make sure your home has smoke detectors less than 10 years old and fire extinguishers, and remember to create a fire escape plan.
▪ Call your local fire district to check what fire protection is in place around your home. One option is the installation of a home sprinkler system, although that can be pricey.
▪ If you’ve got a water line or a natural pond nearby, call your utility to determine whether it’s possible to install hydrants. If you want to install a fire hydrant system and water lines in your neighborhood, 60 percent of the residents in your neighborhood must vote to approve the new system. That can be costly, too — reach out to county council to see if there’s any funding available.
Sources: Dan Byrne, Burton Fire District & Pam Flasch, Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority